What DJI Being Added to the U.S. Entity List Means for your Drone

Feb 10, 2021 9:00:00 AM  |  0 Comments

With China’s DJI being formally added to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List, many are wondering what’s in store for the drone market.

We’ve compiled a breakdown of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s decision, what it means for U.S. drone manufacturers and other drone industry leaders, and what our experts at Measure recommend regarding your company’s drone decisions.

The Decision: DJI Added to U.S. Entity List

According to the Federal Register, the decision to add DJI was made because of “…activities contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests” and more specifically, claims that the entity has enabled “wide-scale human rights abuses within China through abusive genetic collection and analysis or high-technology surveillance, and/or facilitated the export of items by China that aid repressive regimes around the world, contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests.”

Are DJI Drones Banned in the U.S.?

No. The decision to add DJI to the U.S. Entity List simply means DJI can no longer obtain U.S.-made tech to manufacture their drones. It does not prevent DJI products from being purchased or operated in the U.S. for any reason.

According to DroneAnalyst, DJI has not disclosed a list of their suppliers, however the publication suspects DJI may not be significantly impacted by these procurement limitations, and DJI has likely been preparing its supply chain for this possibility for some time. It is possible the ban could impact DJI’s ability to use Amazon Web Services (AWS) or impact availability of its mobile flight applications on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Drone Data Security Concerns

While not explicitly stated in the Federal Register, among the concerns surrounding the use of DJI drones has been the alleged requirement to share drone data with the Chinese government upon request. DJI has responded to these concerns, ensuring customers that “no evidence of unexpected data transmission connections from DJI’s apps designed for government and professional customers” has been found.

DJI aircraft generate a wealth of data, and mobile applications like DJI Go can turn that data into detailed flight logs, as well as upload imagery and video to the cloud. As a manufacturer of flying cameras, DJI certainly has non-malicious purposes for collecting data on its products. This data however also can be very sensitive depending on the end-user, in particular for those flying for public safety, military purposes, critical infrastructure inspections, etc. who are worried about the data falling into the wrong hands.

It should be noted here that DJI drones are not connected directly to the internet, nor do they come with built-in wireless connectivity. They access services like firmware updates and Geo Unlock through your mobile device or computer. Even in the early days of the data security scare, simply flying with your mobile device in airplane mode and deleting the DJI application before reconnecting eliminated flight log uploads to the DJI Cloud. And today, Measure periodically tests tools we have implemented like Local Data Mode to ensure no data is being sent to unauthorized third parties.

Wondering whether your company should be concerned about data security risks from flying DJI drones? We’ve compiled some examples of data generated by certain jobs, and the types of security issues with drones that could result:

  • Flight logs. The telemetry data collected in drone flight logs can include where the drone flew, flight altitude, actions taken during flight, and more, which could be considered sensitive if the location must be kept private. For example, confidentiality can play a significant role in the drone delivery of medical supplies and lab samples, or footage of high-security construction sites.
  • Flight plans. Consisting of waypoints (longitude/latitude/altitude) and drone and camera instructions, flight plans can reveal information on existing or planned infrastructure and therefore may be sensitive. Sometimes these flight plans exist in the cloud as well on the mobile device and drone. Even the name of a flight plan could be sensitive.
  • Imagery and video. While flight logs can be automatically generated within Measure Ground Control and other applications like DJI Go, other data products are commonly produced during flight such as imagery and video and associated metadata, which is written onto the micro SD card or onto onboard storage, as well as lower resolution versions of imagery from the live feed that can be attached to flight logs.
  • Location data. Mobile flight applications will want to use your location to pull up maps of the vicinity for planning and awareness.  
  • Pilot information. Personal details about the crew, including name, email address, password, etc.  

While the perceived level of risk that comes with flying DJI drones might vary depending on the nature of a company’s drone operations, it has already had an impact on the drone industry. According to research from DroneAnalyst, these security claims are influencing 27% of drone purchases, and “while more than half (58%) paused or slowed their purchases, the remaining 42% found U.S.-made alternatives,” indicating increased market share has indeed been driven toward U.S. companies.

U.S. Drone Manufacturers

DJI accounts for 69% of the drone market, and with good reason. Customers rarely face wait times for their products, their drones come in varying shapes, sizes, and capabilities, and they all share the same operating system. An ecosystem around DJI has also formed over the last few years, including suppliers, aftermarket accessories, training, and fully integrated third party software. However, the data security concerns discussed may cause some drone users to turn their interest toward U.S. made drones.

Due to DJI’s extensive roster of products and capabilities, replacing several of their products will likely require drone operations managers to source from multiple manufacturers. While this will complicate your fleet, proper planning and organization can make for a smooth transition. Measure can help.

Questions Drone Program Managers Should Ask When Replacing DJI Products

  • Why are you looking for a replacement to DJI? For some organizations, DJI’s geofencing is a major point of frustration, although DJI has made improvements in the process of requests to unlock airspace, and Measure Ground Control offers integrated Geo unlock in app. Some companies performing drone services for federal agencies, on military facilities, etc. may find that their preferred DJI aircraft are not welcome.
  • Which capabilities are most important in a replacement fleet? Are image quality and thermal mapping essential for your business? Do you need several different types of drones, or is consistency important among your fleet? Drone program managers should have a clear understanding of the capabilities they seek when acquiring new drones.
  • How large is the manufacturer you’re considering? When looking into replacement manufacturers, you’ll want to do some research surrounding the size of the company and their reputation for quality control.

U.S. companies with a focus on data security will want to consider a “Blue sUAS,” instead of DJI. Among this list of drones approved by the U.S. Department of Defense is the Parrot ANAFI USA, which also has significant resources in terms of manufacturing and quality control. Other Blue sUAS drones manufacturers include Altavian (recently acquired by FLIR, an intriguing development), Skydio, Teal and Vantage Robotics.

Conclusion

The nascent drone industry is a microcosm of U.S.-Chinese relations, and the future is murky. For now, you can continue to purchase and use DJI drones for commercial purposes, and there still is no true equivalent in terms of price point or performance for many applications. However, expect the future to be more diverse with different manufacturers competing for market share. Measure is already working with its customers to ensure a smooth transition whether they choose to stay with DJI or add different platforms.

The drone industry is constantly evolving, and we’re in the midst of an ever-changing international security and trade environment. Despite these fluctuations, our mission at Measure remains the same: to keep our customers informed and ensure they continually reap the benefits of drone technology.

Looking for more insights on managing your drone program? Our updated guide for commercial drone programs contains best practices for drone programs of all shapes and sizes. Download it here.

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